100-year-old Treaty 11 coming to N.W.T. for 1st time since signing

The original Treaty 11 document will be on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife in September and October. It's the first time in 100 years that the document will make its way back North.

Document signatures represent 'strength we've always had' says Indigenous elder

A Dene man accepts money from a fully uniformed Mountie seated behind a table draped with a British flag in Yellowknife. Food and money were distributed in communities after — and sometimes before — Treaty 11 was signed. (Library and Archives Canada)

For the first time since its signing 100 years ago, the original Treaty 11 document is coming to the North. 

It's a journey that has taken "months and months and months" worth of logistical planning, according to an archivist who's involved. One Indigenous elder says it's an opportunity to continue a dialogue about the "spirit and intent" with which the document was signed by local leaders. 

Treaty 11 was signed by the Crown and more than a dozen Gwich'in, Sahtu Dene, Dehcho Dene and Tłı̨chǫ communities in the Northwest Territories in the summer of 1921.

For decades afterward, most of those subject to Treaty 11 didn't know what the text said. When the government's version of the treaty was first translated and read to an assembly of Dene chiefs in 1969, it immediately caused outrage.

"It was shocking," Norman Yakeleya, today the Dene National Chief, told CBC News earlier this year. "They [had] agreed to … a peace and friendship treaty" — but what they heard was something else entirely. 

Recognition of strength

John B. Zoe, a former chief land claims negotiator who helped establish the Tłı̨chǫ government in the N.W.T., said the meaning of the text has "always been controversial." 

But what makes the document come alive, he said, are the signatures of Indigenous leaders, which represented a commitment to working on a relationship with the Crown "in relation to land, in relation to our languages, in relation to our culture and our ways of life." 

John B. Zoe speaks during a caribou management meeting in Behchoko, N.W.T., in 2020. He says the Indigenous peoples have kept the 'spirit and intent' of Treaty 11 alive for a century. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

That meaning is not part of the written text, he said, but it was the "spirit and intent" and that's "what people have kept alive all these years." 

It's also what Zoe hopes will continue to be discussed moving forward. 

"The days of having elders that were witnesses to these agreements or the first generation … are numbered," he said. "We need to capture those thought processes and to make sure the original intentions about why the treaty was taken, on the Indigenous side, will continue to be passed on because there are two versions." 

For Zoe, the "full strength" with which leaders signed Treaty 11 is worth celebrating. 

"It's … a tool that [was] used to bring us down before, but it's also a tool that can give recognition as to the strength we've always had," he said. 

'Kind of in booklet form'

Known as the last of Canada's numbered treaties, Treaty 11 is "kind of in a booklet form" and has "marbled endpapers," said Erin Suliak, the N.W.T.'s territorial archivist who described "months and months and months" of planning to get the document to Yellowknife.

The pages were written in cursive ink before Henry A. Conroy, a treaty commissioner, even brought it to communities for the first time.

The original wording of Treaty 11, signed in Fort Providence on July 27, 1921. The government's version of the treaty was first translated and read to an assembly of Dene chiefs in 1969. (NWT Archives/Rene Fumoleau/N-1995-002-9686)

The document is coming from Ottawa, where it is held by the Government of Canada at Library and Archives Canada. To bring it to the Northwest Territories, details as big as which plane it'll fly on are kept confidential for security purposes while details as minute as the exhibit's light levels are meticulously planned, said Suliak.

"We have to be careful of how long various pages are even displayed," she said. 

"It's a 100-year-old document and it requires some conservation work on it, in order to stabilize it and be sure it's in its best shape to both travel and be on display," she said. 

Schedule expected

Suliak didn't provide much detail about how the document would be reaching the North, citing security reasons, but she did say it would be accompanied on a plane coming directly from Ottawa. 

"We were not able to find an appropriate shipper that will do it by ground," she said.

She wouldn't say how much the flight would cost, or the expense of putting it on display.

Erin Suliak, the N.W.T.'s territorial archivist, said it's taken 'months and months and months' of planning to bring the original Treaty 11 document to the North, and even yet, not all the details have been figured out. (Submitted by Erin Suliak)

Treaty 11 will be exhibited at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife throughout September and October, though the exact dates have not been announced. 

Suliak expects a schedule will be made available to the public so people who are interested in a particular page or signature can plan their visit accordingly. 

Turning of the pages will be carried out under "very strict" conditions and will not be accessible to the public, she said. The document will be accompanied by a facsimile version, however, that people will be allowed to touch.

"The paper is different, obviously, but it looks exactly the same as the original treaty document. You can flip through it and see what it actually looks like," said Suliak. 

Briony Grabke, a spokesperson for the N.W.T.'s education, culture and employment department, said the document's return to the North was requested by the Treaty 11 steering committee. The committee was organized by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and included members of Gwich'in Tribal Council, Tłı̨chǫ Government, Sahtu Dene Council, Dehcho First Nations and Dene Nation, she said.


Liny Lamberink


Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She can be reached at

With files from John Van Dusen and John Last

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